Good use of pauses can make or break the telling of a story. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to say nothing at all for a while. Here are those moments when you will want to use the power of a well-placed pause.
1. Pause before you begin telling your story
Take a moment to breathe and make eye contact before you start telling your story.
It is important for several different reasons:
- If people see you for the first time, they will be distracted by how you look. It will take them a couple of seconds to be able to listen to you. Pausing gives them this time.
- The pause at the beginning gathers the attention of people. They fall silent and their attention is directed to you.
- In the pause at the beginning you can start to make eye contact with several people, building a connection with your listeners.
- Not rushing into the story, but taking the time to pause projects a feeling of relaxedness and confidence. There is no rush, which enables people to relax into listening.
- A pause at the beginning makes you also more aware of the mood and energy of your audience, which is important as you transition into the story.
2. Pause to appear more relaxed and confident
Do you know those people who keep on talking and talking? It feels like they are afraid to stop talking.
When you are confident, you don’t need to rush or to fill every second with words. You can pause. You are comfortable in being with your listeners.
When you think about the word relaxed, it almost always has to do with a slowing down. You want your listeners to be relaxed with you and the story. So you will need to be relaxed with them. Slowing down by pausing gives you the appearance your listeners need to listen to you.
3. Pause to amplify tension and anticipation
When you are telling a story, at some point the listeners are going to wonder how it will end.
As you continue to tell the story, pauses are one of the best ways to amplify the tension in your story and their anticipation. They work well between the setup of the conflict (see image: ❓ ) and the resolution (see image: ❗ ).
There is not much need for this kind of pause before the setup or after the resolution, as there is no tension there to amplify.
Each of these pauses gives your listeners time to fall deeper into the story. They predict and wonder and ache about how the story will end. It is a wonderful experience.
Slowing down your stories and pausing is particularly effective in scary stories. I wrote more about this here:
4. Pause when you make a transition
When you tell a story, you sometimes make jumps. You jump to another time (“a week later…”), to another place (“in the cafe…”), to another mood (“but was it really true?”). We call these jumps transitions in the story.
A pause before you transition gives your listeners time to take a breath, hold your hand, and jump with you.
A sudden jump will confuse a part of your listeners. You might even lose their attention. So pause, to make sure you take them with you.
5. Pause to make a point
When you pause, your listeners process what you just said. So after an important point, pause. It is like underlining what you just said.
This might sound very simple, but too often I see that the point somebody wants to make gets lost because they do not give their listeners the time to process it.
When you do not pause anywhere, it might be a sign that even you do not know what the important parts of the story are.
6. Pause to let your listeners imagine the scene
When you are telling a story full of vivid images, your listeners are creating these images in your head as they listen to you. Some people need a little more time for this process. Give them this time and don’t lose them by going too fast.
Practically, after every scene that you describe, you should pause. In this pause the images become clearer and more vivid in the minds of your listeners. It will result in a story that makes more impact and will be better remembered.
7. Pause to amplify the emotions in your story
“Even before opening the door, I smelled the apple pies. The bakery was incredible. Hot and full of fragrance. Pies on shelves, pies on the counter, pies everywhere. A blond woman with a great smile offered me a piece. It was crunchy and soft at the same time. PAUSE I wanted to hug this angle of apple pie but succeeded only in dropping my plate. It broke into tens of pieces. Suddenly everybody looked at me… PAUSE”
In the fragment above, the first PAUSE deepens the feeling of enjoyment that this apple pie gives. The second PAUSE deepens the feeling of having done something terrible.
We all know that the longer we stay with a certain feeling, the stronger it usually gets. At least for a couple of seconds.
💡 Often I hear storytellers tell what the characters are feeling. That almost never works. If you tell me a character is joyful I don’t become joyful. A better way is to let the feeling bubble up inside yourself and pause to give your listeners time to catch these feelings from you.
8. Pause after a rhetorical question
When telling a story you or a character in your story might ask a question out loud.
You want people to think a little, to agree with you, or to follow the thought process of a character. It’s not a question you want an answer to, it’s a rhetorical question.
After this question, people need a pause. The pause needs to be long enough so the question can have its impact, but not too long. People might start wondering if they are supposed to answer the question.
To avoid people answering the question, I find it helps when you don’t look them in the eyes when you ask the question or during the rhetorical pause.
9. Pause before and after a punchline
Telling a funny story or joke that contains a punchline, is all about timing and pausing.
When there is a sentence or word that will flip the story upside down or bring laughter, you will need to make sure that your listeners got what went before. A pause would help them to be prepared for the punchline.
After the punchline, they need to process it. And to laugh. The best you can do is pause until the laughter has died down.
10. Pause to listen together to the story
There is a lot going on while telling a story. Not only are you speaking to your listeners, but it’s important to let the story speak to you afresh during the telling. After all, you started to tell it, because it means something to you.
This is not the kind of pause that you use in a tall tale or a comedic story. This kind of pause works best when you are deeply together in the story. When you are in what you can call a ‘storytelling trance’.
Your listeners will feel that you are willing to listen to the story yourself.
11. Pause when you lose the story
Sooner or later you will tell a story where you forget a part. Or you will not know how to continue. Instead of mumbling an apology, pause.
So far, nobody knows that you lost the red thread of your story. Take some seconds to gather your thoughts.
- walk a little
- drink a sip of water
- take a longer pause
You will find that usually, as long as you don’t panic, but pause, the story will come back to you.
12. Pause to signal the end
You have said your last words. Hopefully, it is clear that your story has ended.
Don’t rush. Now is the time for the long pause.
When it is not clear to your listeners that you are finished, a nod will do.
At some moment there will be applause (or not). Regardless, you will pause until you have received all the reactions of your listeners. Never step on their applause or walk away. This is their moment of thanking you.
The Pause in Storytelling
Most people pause too little. A few pause too much. And you?
Keep in mind that a three-second pause can feel very natural and pleasant for your listeners. You however might feel like you are silent for a short eternity. It is something you need to become comfortable with.
No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.Mark Twain
If you want to become better at using pauses when you tell a story, start to experiment with them. Always in connection with your listeners. This might feel awkward at first, but soon your experiments will lead to experience. Conscious pausing will lead to an inner rhythm.
Just give it time.
💡 Once a month, I send out an email with new writings on storytelling and fairy tales.